The Cuba Chronicles, Day 3 (and an aside)

By Joe LaGuardia

On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years.  These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here.  Find Day 2, Part 2 here.

We visited Iglesia Bautista Shalom, a home church in La Boca, Cuba.  La Boca is a small and impoverished fishing village on the outskirts of El Mariel.  A power plant and port stand on the horizon, providing jobs for both towns.

The home is a two-story dwelling, built like many homes in Cuba with brick and mortar, held together by a patchwork of aluminum corrugated siding and roofing. The first floor living room serves as the chapel, in which the congregation greets guests with hugs and kisses.

Their pastor, Pastor Corita, has been shepherd of this flock for nearly 20 years.  She is unassuming, smart–she longed to be a professor of theology–and treats each person kindly and with care.

Several parishioners are either retired from or work at the elementary school, located just across the street.  One retired teacher, for example, is the church’s administrator.  She seems to be like a grandmother to all, and her smile was contagious.  Another retired teacher serves as the chairwoman of the deacons.

Everything in the church reflects the industrial and fishing culture of La Boca.  The church logo has a sailboat at its center. The hand-sewn liturgical banners and the parament on the communion table have loaves and fish.  The chalice and paten are crude and sit idle next to an aged, open Bible.  A bulletin board advertises events, classes, education materials, and the familiar color-wheel of the Christian calendar.

About forty churchgoers enjoy fellowship and worship every weekend.  The liturgy is steeped in the rhythm of God’s seasons (it’s Ordinary Time, ya’ll, and the color is green), and music is indigenous.  An overhead projector, connected to a laptop donated from some United States partner, aids in worship.

It is with a love of the Lord, an emphasis on worship, and a generous love of neighbor that the congregation seeks to bring shalom and support to an otherwise poor neighborhood.  A new ministry endeavor, the purchase of a 20-foot fishing vessel they lovingly call the Daisy, will create a micro-economy that will provide fish to locals at a fair-wage rate, enough to pay for employees and overhead, but not much else.  For being a fishing village, we are surprised to learn that much of the fish is exported to Havana to fuel the tourist industry.  People in the village don’t make enough money to compete, so the haul from the Daisy will be a real blessing.

Upon purchasing the Daisy, they have repaired the hull.  The only work left is building out a floor at a cost of $350.00.  With a passing of the collection plate, we provided the funding and were a part of launching an entire micro-economy for this amazing church.

An Aside: The Sounds of Cuba

At the end of the day, I had time to reflect on a few things.  Although traffic jams exist and make up for much of the noise in Havana (with all of the Ladas and the Peugeots, not withstanding), the real life of Cuba–its sights and sounds–come from the Cubans themselves.

 A cacophony surrounds us.  Dogs insist on barking at nightfall to gossip about the day’s news.  Roosters crow at 4:30 in the morning.  Conversations between neighbors, the sweeping of terraces, the knocking on doors by guests fill the air with fresh banter.  In the marketplace, the sounds of bartering and buying of a few goods are ubiquitous.  Every afternoon, men with a cart walk down the street blowing a whistle and announcing the sale of fresh bread.

There is the occasional blare of a television forecasting some ominous news story (all of the ominous stories are from the United States; the positive ones are about the Castro regime) or hip-hop from Cuba’s version of Mtv.  I have heard more George Michael songs here in the last three days than I’ve heard in the last twenty years, and I have not heard a single note of Country music or classic rock.

We have also experienced the occasional curb-side arguments.  I asked our translator if they were arguing about politics. “No, this is Cuba,” he said (in other words, you don’t talk politics publicly!), “They are arguing about baseball.”

Aside from these little noises from God’s creation, there seems to be a heaviness in the air that mutes everyone and everything, as if there is an impending burden brought on by the worries of sudden changes in the currency or the next food shortage.  Even lovers who snuggle on the sea wall do not have much to say.  No one who passes you on the street says hello.  There is energy and contentment, but both are tenuous.

I was trying to see where I fit in all of this.  Cuba is not like the South in the U.S., with all of its joyful hospitality; nor is it like the North, with its cold, blue-collar terseness or white-color anxiety over the stock market.  Instead, there exists a tension that arrests the entire island, a weight that I can only assume accompanies the suppression of a government bent on shaping its people and the messages they hear.

This is a government that insures the survival of its closed hegemony and some long-lost ideal that government distribution is somehow more beneficial to the people than capitalism.  With my own education in the American Founding and a bedrock belief that God created all of us with the innate longing for liberty, these feelings or musings were new to me and hit me the hardest during my stay in Cuba.  I was moved, and I could see why Cuba needs Jesus, one whom God sends “to bring release to the captives.”

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The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 2

By Joe LaGuardia

On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years.  These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here.

We visited Iglesia Bautista Ebenezer on the outskirts of Havana.  It is a thriving church and home to the Martin Luther King, Jr., heritage center, a non-profit recognized by the Cuban government.  (That the church is named “Ebenezer,” the same as MLK’s church in Atlanta, was coincidental.)

Aside from the heritage center, the church hosts on-going professional development for adults and training camps for youth and college students interested in learning about social justice, non-violent civic engagement, and community reconciliation.  After-school programs and other ministries, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also bolster the congregation’s ministry.  Visiting professors from around the world come to stay at a campus apartment to teach theology to clergy and lay leaders in week-long intensive courses.

Ebenezer exemplifies what some theologians call “leaven”-style missions, recalling Jesus’ parable in which he likens the Kingdom of God to a woman who subversively sneaks leaven into a batch of bread.  The church hopes that the Gospel infiltrates their neighborhood and, from efforts in education, in reaching communities for Jesus Christ across the island.

This is a fundamental part in Ebenezer’s history: As one of three original churches (another being Pastor Maykel’s church, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan) to found the Fraternity of Baptists, its previous pastor worked with the government to soften religious tensions.  This work, which began some 25 years ago, attracted the ire of other Baptist churches, and the three churches were accused of promoting communism.  The atheist government, meanwhile, was weary of the Christian influence.  The Fraternity formed as a result of this schism.

Ebenezer’s work with the government became an asset not only to Christians in Cuba, but to the entire population in the mid-1990s.  At the time, the Soviet Union collapsed and resources were scarce. Cuba entered a time of hardship and famine.  Churches, especially those working close with the government and non-profits in the area, became hubs for emergency relief.  This leverage led to further dialogue, and Ebenezer was able to seat the first Christian senator in Parliament since the advent of Communism.  We met the senator, who remains influential throughout Havana.

Ebenezer is a flagship church in the Fraternity as it seeks to raise up a new generation of Christian business and government leaders who seek to be on mission in Cuba.  The leadership is made up of three pastors, one devoted to the work of the Heritage Center and training; another to developing, writing, and producing Cuban Christian liturgy, disseminated to the rest of the Christian churches in Cuba (indigenous liturgy is extremely important in the Fraternity); and a third engaged in pastoral care and programming.  The pastors rotate in preaching and church leadership.  They want to model the type of egalitarian community they believe reflects God’s kingdom.  Every year, each pastor takes a different category of ministry, so the energy and creativity stays fresh and vibrant.  (To me, this church mirrors the kind of leadership model and good work you can find at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.)

Ebenezer is one of eight churches in the Fraternity that have free-standing buildings.  The rest are home churches that rely on the resources and training that churches like Ebenezer provide — Pastor Maykel calls it “divine resourcing,” which reminded me of my own ideas on “creative resourcing” we’ve been implementing at First Baptist.  (I like Maykel’s term better, as it assumes that God is in charge of the agenda rather than our own limited brains!)

Pastor Maykel, Pastor Corita (whom we met earlier), and the three pastors at Ebenezer believe that they are reaping the harvest of seeds sown so many years earlier with visionary pastors who were willing to dialogue with what were once sworn enemies of Christendom.  Through their hard work, they now have a chance to be a part of the governing process–its the slow work that affirms Martin Luther King, Jr’s admission that the “arc of history bends towards justice.”

 

 

 

The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 1

Pastor Maykel shows us future plans for the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba campus. Seated to the right is Corita, pastor of Iglesia Bautista el Shalom, a Fraternity Baptist Church in El Mariel, Cuba.

By Joe LaGuardia

On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years.  These are my diaries from the trip. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here.

In a country otherwise made up of atheists, many Cubans are Catholics, some protestants, and the rest, those who follow a pseudo-Catholic cult by the name of Santaria.  Santaria is a religion that is one part Catholic and two parts African ancestral worship.  Witchcraft, along with animal sacrifices and other practices of divination, is common, and Santaria’s grip is vast and wide.

As one might expect, Baptist approaches to Santaria are about as diverse as Baptists themselves.  For many Baptists, hostility is the only action against religions other than evangelicalism; but, for many Baptists who make up the Fraternity of Baptist Churches, those entangled in Santaria are no less worthy of hearing the Gospel and being treated as neighbor.

Today we went to Maykel’s house.  Maykel is a pastor of a church in Havana, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan, as well as president of the Fraternity, and he explained how his presence in the community–he lives in the church’s parsonage–offers the opportunity to befriend neighbors who are in the Santaria movement.  Maykel’s wife, also an ordained minister, is sensitive to their neighbors’ plight, and offers hospitality whenever the need arises.

Maykel’s church is also committed to being the presence of Christ in this diverse neighborhood.  It is a hub for various ministries and groups, including after school programs and a computer classes for adults.  Although 20 churchgoers make up Maykel’s church’s youth group, they can reach up to 100 youth in the area with ministries and special events that they promote out of El Jordan.

Maykel gets a salary from the church, although it was not always the case.  He explained that when he first arrived at El Jordan, the average monthly giving was around $400.00.  Maykel communicated the real needs of ministry in the area and taught on stewardship.  Over several years, the congregation raised their level of monthly support to $1,600.00.  Their goal is to raise their level of giving to $2,000.00, so that they may be able to fund other missions and church starts throughout Cuba.

El Jordan also began a building project to acquire a dining hall, dorm room, and kitchen to their current facility.  Building in Cuba is precarious.  You begin with the walls a brick at a time instead of the foundation, lest the pipes and cables in the foundation “disappear” in the middle of the night.  Next, the church will install a roof, requiring $4,000.00 for supplies.  The completion will mean that the church can serve the community in more creative ways, as well as host meals, mission groups, and neighborhood gatherings.

Our next stop was Milano Verde, or “Green Mill,” the campus of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches.  With 2 buildings and several plans for expansion, the campus is central for the 42 churches in the Fraternity.  In fact, 50 pastors and lay leaders plan to gather here next week for a church start/evangelism conference hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Maykel explained the importance of this space.  For one, theological education is a core value of the Fraternity, and although the local seminary is effective in teaching theology, it lacks the curriculum to support pastors in church starting and outreach ministries.  The Fraternity campus is pivotal in providing these resources. Second, the campus serves the wider community, as it is home to a water purification system that is so good the local hospital uses the water to sterilize its equipment.  The system and its installation were donations by a Presbyterian church in Florida, exhibiting the Fraternity’s success in building ecumenical partnerships.

Maykel also explained how ecumenical partnerships benefit their churches’ missions.  The Fraternity recently approved placing a printing press, complete with building, on campus.  The press will publish Bibles in partnership with the United Bible Society.  South Korean churches are donating the press; Canadian Baptists are donating the pre-furbished building, and the Bible Society will donate supplies and materials for the Bibles.  Local Cubans will benefit from the new micro-economy as they will work the press and transport the Bibles to the rest of the island.  Future plans call for a volleyball/recreation field and a chapel for services.

As Maykel described the ministries of both his church and the Fraternity, I could not help but conclude that he is a master administrator and visionary.  Many from his flock have affirmed as much, as many told us of how much the church and the Fraternity have improved as a result of his leadership.  Best of all, he is not from outside the community–Maykel grew up in El Jordan, and it was there that he heard God’s call to the ministry.

El Jordan and the Fraternity’s campus embody the deepest values that the Fraternity represents, namely being the presence of Christ in a spirit of inclusivity, ecumenism, collaboration, theological education and missions.  Another Fraternity Baptist pastor we met, Pastor Corita, originally traveled to Mexico to become a theologian, but heard the call to ministry in her native land of Cuba during her studies.  After serving in marginalized communities in Mexico, primarily among children and others exploited by human trafficking, she became pastor of a church we set out to visit on Day 3 of our trip.  She, like so many people we met, is the product of those core values, and her ministry to her own flock tells the story of a people who have become born again as a result of a Baptist movement that provides hope to this diverse island.